Friday, October 22, 2010

Research Managers: Hanging on the Wicks of the Fingernails

Research Managers: Hanging on the Wicks of the Fingernails

Rob Norman details the unique struggle of his collective stakeholders in a multi-party group of researchers forming their own institute to ensure that necessary resources are directed towards the continuation of their funding efforts and projects. Earlier Professor McMillen had discussed that university administration could supplement and jump start funding challenges and even provide stop gaps where certain grants might have challenging lead time delays.

However Norman reveals that early university support waxed and waned and while providing a small investment to ensure that the foundation of the collaboration could be implemented could not be relied upon to generate operational income for several hundred researchers. In his case, team members include a dedicated marketing manager and a funding applications manager whose purposes are to focus entirely on acquiring and maintaining minimum funding resources. He describes that while the opportunity to win competitive category one Australian grants income is slight the returns on generating a winning proposal could be 48 million dollars of funding. Aside: did he get the funding?

The funding sources and categories pursued would rely upon consistent planning and revision on the conditions of the institute's orientation itself limited in scope to ensure research is conducted which meets the vision and mission of the organisation. Norman describes his role as a sandwich between the institute researchers and the Board of Directors which while not necessarily at odds possibly gripe and nip at each other through Norman. Therefore managing relationships between these two groups could require calm and patient nerves of steel.

CSIRO appears to mitigate risks by including large scale core areas of research innovation and a decades long development of its key success factors to provide a holistic and historical inter-generational record available to its own cadres. In terms of its scope while possibly not considered "too big to fail" or "too big to cut funding" probably has many opportunities to share resources across disciplines when and where there are shortfalls in funding. Smaller groups such as the Woolcock, CW+L and the Centre for Sleep Research are highly segmenting their research pursuits and probably benefit from the niche orientation of the nature of their disciplines. For example, I would imagine that sleep research centres are few and far between and while I realize that more than sleep is researched there the opportunities for funding are more narrowly classified and possibly with few other competitors for similar funding than compared to CSIRO research domains.

Cooperative research centres and efforts at greater collaboration are aiming for similar efficiencies and focused results as Norman's specialized but diverse stakeholders whereby a collective approach to funding and grants applications may result in higher successful approval returns or as one of our classmates earlier summarized, "united we stand, divided we fall." The purposes of the ARC and NHMRC are also intended (whether results support intention would be my contention) to streamline funding applications and sources to reduce overlap and redundant or duplicated results. For the purposes of discerning nightmarish but realistic scenarios Professor Dawson at SARDI reflects upon the less than complementary world that the majority of Australia's finest researchers find themselves in. Namely that these innovators and creators be they applied or "head in the clouds" social scientists are hanging on by the wicks of their fingernails in full-time part-time or full-time contracts subject to perpetual uncertainty in terms of future or continued funding. Commercial project collaborations may be the refuge of those researchers seeking to fill their bowls with more than a crust of bread when annual funding chops whittle their portions further.

Personally for all my learning pursuits I have been a boot-strapper. I've paid for it all out of my own meagre pocket. But it has given me the freedom to select among options and choices which only seem to multiply around the world. While I have yet to call myself a contract researcher I still see it as potential future possibility. I eagerly await to ride the international waves of possible incentives to my adding my lot to the grants applications and proposals process. But that would require a completed PhD. As I focus on short to medium term risks in funding such a three to four year process I do appreciate the complexities and variations in strategy necessarily dependent upon the size and scope of the research group itself and its ability to ensure success. Good results are useful and expand knowledge. If only the field of research could claim successive decades of peerless accountability and benefit to society. Any groups which can demonstrate that should be blessed with the longevity which adequate funding supports. I am loathe to rely or depend upon governments or their agencies for that support. They appear too fickle for my taste.

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